Q&A: Formatting & Designing Google Sheets
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
A lot of people ask me about why I format Sheets the way I do (why the effort!?). Here are my answers to the 5 (+1) most common questions I get asked
Why do I always leave column A and row 1 empty?
I don't just leave column A and row 1 empty. I also leave the bottom-most row and the right-most column empty. (For example, columns A & F and rows 1 and 73 in this sheet from my Character List post). I create the "frame" around the content of the sheet because it helps viewers visually orient themselves. Consider the page you're viewing right now. Are the words colliding with the bottom of the screen? I'll bet they are. And what does that tell you? It tells you that there's more information below the fold. In Sheets, I find that the "frame" has the same effect. I can look at the screen and immediately know if there is more content out of view.
Why delete unused rows and columns?
Two reasons here. The first reason is the same as above: it helps with visual orientation. In fact, adding the "frame" is only possible when you also delete unused columns/rows. The second reason is performance. The more columns and rows, the more cells. The more cells, the slower the Sheet.
Why do I hide gridlines?
Because gridlines are ugly.
... but ALSO... I hide gridlines because it makes my screenshots of tables and charts look better. Check out the two examples below. Which one do you think will look better in a slide / slack message / email?
Why so little color?
Because I want the little bit of color I do use to REALLY stand out. It should say to the viewer: there's something noteworthy here. If the cell has a bright red fill, I'm calling out that it's bad (e.g., status of "delayed", or cash runway has fallen below the minimum threshold). If the cell is pale red, typically I'm indicating that what should be a formula has been over-written with a manual input. And pale yellow means that this cell is designed to be a manual input, intended to be edited directly. And that's really about it. Headers, fonts, everything else... shades of gray.
... Except tabs. Why apply color to the tabs?
I assign colors to tabs for two reasons. Fist, to help viewers navigate more efficiently. Blue and green tabs = important. Black and gray = background calculations or references (no review needed). The second reason is to signify completeness. I wait until I've completed building a tab to assign it a color. And if I'm making major edits to the tab, I remove the color, while it is "under construction". So when I return to a model, and I see a sheet without a color assigned I know that either a) it's incomplete, b) it's temporary (and meant to be deleted) or c) someone else created it.
Why write blog posts that nobody reads?
Ok, two more points, then I'm done. I swear.
1) My design choices together create a unique and consistent visual identity. (This includes the way I write formulas - all caps, lots of spaces). And there's value in that for me, because I can immediately recognize whether something is my creation, or not. And if there's something in one of my models that I didn't create, I know to look closely at it, because errors occur when there are multiple cooks in the kitchen.
2) You can build the most powerful, brilliant model in the world, but if no one wants to use it, it's worthless. Or, if they can't use it without you there to explain - maybe not worthless, but worth little. Design alone is not the solution, but it sure as shit helps. Keep your models clean and consistent - professional-looking - and your stakeholders will be more willing and able to interact with them.